Originally published in SLAM 166

by Nima Zarrabi / portraits Tom Medvedich

The thuds were violent, piercing the earth as if they wanted it to burst into a million little pieces. They arrived in odd sequences, sometimes in musical synergy and sometimes separated by a second or two. Then there were footsteps—squeaks of sneakers chemically reacting with hardwood. Then, quiet. An unusual calm transitioning into an atomic boom, rattling every piece of energy around. Advertising executives and creative directors—fresh dudes with sleek Buddy Holly frames, pants pressed and rolled for Paris, crease-free-out-the-box Jordans—are scattered throughout, many huddled around temporary chairs near a nondescript LCD monitor. It shows a large, crater-free moon resting in the palm of a muscular figure surrounded by glass in a dark room. The thuds return. They are symmetric with the movement of the graceful silhouette that illuminates the dark soundstage. He dribbles the uncontrollable moon; somehow it stays within his hands before he flies upward with it, shifting from his hip to above his head, dropping from one galaxy to the next. The moon crashes to the Earth for a perfect landing and sits still. Blake Griffin picks up the moon with both hands. He receives instruction. He will throw the moon even harder next time. He will do this over and over again. The rattling soundstage, a massive covered building in the San Fernando Valley, will surely never be the same. Griffin’s first commercial shoot with Jordan Brand is taking place here and the star of the show doesn’t plan on leaving until he gets it right.

***

On the night the Clippers made history, the game against Sacramento goes as planned—Griffin and Chris Paul dominate, each racking up double-doubles. L.A.’s sturdy reserves—known as A Tribe Called Bench—kill any dreams of a late Kings comeback and the Clippers bank their 12th straight. There is a play that occurs halfway through the second quarter that illustrates the closeness of this squad: Backup PG Eric Bledsoe, trailing a Kings fast break, sneaks up on then-Kings rookie Thomas Robinson for a nasty block. Bledsoe jumps so high to make the play, he falls straight down on his hip before he has time to brace his fall. After getting up for a moment, he goes back to the ground. When the ball is finally called dead, every player on the Clippers bench sprints over to check on him. “That’s the type of chemistry and love we have for one another,” Bledsoe reflects after the game.

Sitting at their typical joint post-game press conference, BG and CP3 begin to speak on how far the organization has come since the duo paired up before last season. Just like when they’re roaming 94 feet, Blake and Chris complement each other nicely in this setting as well. “I remember the season I was drafted, they had won 18 or 19 games,” Griffin recalls. “To think we already accomplished that so far is great, but I think the best part about it for me is being a part of something that is bigger than yourself. It’s bigger than Chris or I—it takes everybody from top to bottom. It takes the team, the coaching staff, the players—everybody. It’s a collective effort. Everybody has been great since I’ve been here about changing that from Day 1. They have been serious about it and that’s why it changed here.” A scribe mentions that a former Clipper once suggested that leaving the Clips felt like getting out of prison. “I wouldn’t know nothing about that,” Paul says, laughing.

The Clippers finished December with a 16-0 record during the month. And even though their 17-game winning streak was snapped in early January, they put together the best record in the NBA through the first half of the season. Balanced scoring from their big three: Griffin (18.6 points, 8.8 rebounds per), CP3 (16.4 points, 9.5 assists), Jamal Crawford (17 ppg) and his cronies on the deepest bench in the L have established the Clip Show as a serious NBA title contender, and players around the League have taken notice. “When you win that many games in a row, everyone watches,” says Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. “I’m not surprised by their success—they have a lot of veterans, and I feel like this is their second year together and they are really meshing.”

Coach Vinny Del Negro has done an excellent job of spreading out minutes through his roster this season, reaping career seasons from guys like Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Willie Green have been consistent role players who can be counted on. Another off-season addition, Lamar Odom, is working himself into shape and starting to get his feel back as a unique playmaker, catching a groove in January. Who knows how good this team could become when vets Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups round back into shape. Del Negro is very clear about his team’s recipe for success: “Players,” he says, simply. “You have to have talent, guys believing in what you’re doing. We are finding ways to win, being consistent. We want to keep it going and we know we have to play the right way. If we play the right way, our chances grow tremendously.”

Griffin’s growth, specifically, has been key. Currently in his third season, the power forward is now more than shock and awe. Griffin has improved his footwork, defense and interior passing, consistently setting up teammates for easy buckets in the paint. BG always seems to get great depth on the block and has mixed in some lovely dishes to add to his Bane-like power post moves, giving defenses more to think about while trying to defend him. “He’s definitely been showing that his skill level is there,” Aldridge says. “He’s been making more basketball plays.”

Griffin has also added a left-handed spin move to his repertoire and he continues to work on his jumper and free-throw shooting (which is up almost 14 full points, to 65.9 percent this season). The pressure Griffin puts on opposing big men is tremendous. He is literally sprinting down court on every play, consistently beating his man to a deep low-post position. Once there, he will pump fake or body a guy to near death. “His ability to finish through contact, because he really gets punished down there, is quite amazing,” adds Turiaf, in his eighth year. But Griffin’s attitude is what truly sets him apart. Kind and thoughtful off the court, he plays with an edge and attitude on it that is relentless effort mixed with athletic splendor. He is without a doubt the Clippers’ most physically gifted player, and its least satisfied. For this team, he sets the tone—and then CP3 makes them go.

The genesis of the Clippers’ revival came on June 25, ’09. In a Draft some critics hailed as lacking star power, the Clippers selected Griffin with the No. 1 pick overall. That night at the Draft, he was asked if he knew anything about the Clippers’ unfortunate and unlucky team history. In the nicest way possible, he said he didn’t care. “I wasn’t there for that,” Griffin proclaimed.

This is the attitude that led CP3 to actually want to come here and will likely lead him to stay. The same feeling that led Crawford to tell the Clippers that they were his No. 1 choice when he met with them during his first meeting of the free-agent period. It brought Hill here and Lamar back, too. “It’s about how hard he works, that’s what really caught me off guard,” Crawford says of Griffin. “When nobody is guarding him, he goes through a drill as if two people are guarding him. So it’s a little unbelievable seeing his drive. He wants to be great. He wants to go down in history as one of the greatest.”

The level of respect Griffin shows everyone comes across as a testament to how he was raised. It’s simple to see why BG and CP get along so effortlessly. They share a familiar family background—both are extremely close to their parents and understand the responsibilities that come with being role models. But don’t get it twisted—they are true competitors who will embarrass you on the court when called for.

On the night they meet the Lakers for a home tilt during the first week of January, the Clippers locker room is packed with reporters pregame. While the Lakers are feeling the media heat because of their sorry start, the Clippers seem to be on vacation in their cavernous domicile. Hill sits in a swivel chair, holding court with Laker beat reporters as they debate the most hated players in Duke history. Hill, a player who Griffin heard folk tales about from his coach at Oklahoma, Jeff Capel, is the elder statesmen of the team at 40 years young. A sweaty Jordan appears from his pregame work, singing “Express Yourself” loudly as he makes his way to his locker. Butler is sprawled on the floor, in full concentration during what feels like a 20-minute stretch routine. Billups struts in and as he glides by reporters to change, he repeats, “Gentlemen, gentlemen” until he arrives at his chair. Crawford is out tonight due to a sore foot—an injury he believes was caused from his “flimsy shoes.” Turiaf is holding court with Odom. Both veterans have added a unique element of chillness to the Clippers. Odom keeps guys at ease with his easy going nature and his ability to relate to everyone; Turiaf keeps teammates loose with laughter. The hand gestures he showcases during games has taken hold of the team—they literally go wild for it.

“It started a month ago,” Turiaf explains. “I used to make a hand gesture of an and-one and I did it with my left hand one day and got a little carried away with the motion and turned it into a twirl. And everybody started laughing. So I was like, man, We’ve got to keep it up!”

It takes about four minutes for the game to start cooking. CP3 picks off a pass near midcourt and sees Griffin sprinting up court. Blake launches from a trampoline near the block, rocketing upward until it’s time to land the nasty two-handed dunk. Staples rocks, Lob City rolls. Minutes later, Kobe gets his hand in the lane and knocks one of CP3’s passes to himself. A foot race ensues. CP3 tries to get back and it’s a horrific mistake. Mamba taps into his KB8 days for the ill boom, his off-hand smacking Paul hard in the face on the way down. But, in the end, Kobe can only do so much. His greatness is well apparent throughout the game, but so is the fact that the Clippers are the better team. CP3 shows why he’s an MVP candidate down the stretch, putting Kobe on skates in the final minute, easily floating a jumper over him to seal the 107-102 victory.

At their presser, CP3 and BG share laughs about hearing boos during the game from Lakers fans, even though they were technically the home team in Staples tonight. “My first year during this game, it was like, 95-5,” Blake says of the fan breakdown. “Last year was better and this year is a little better at times, but I think it’s going to take a while.”

They are quite the tandem—no hints of jealousy with these two. Their type of stardom stresses the importance of their teammates on every occasion. The Clipper offense is centered around both guys—through the course of the game, the offense revolves around Blake on the deep block, where he will show or go. Late in games, the ball dances in the hands of CP3 as he uses his remarkable penetration and angles to finish games strong. And after the game, at the table they share, CP3 is dominating the discussion, answering what appears to be every question. That dunk by Kobe? “Oh, you saw that?” Paul asks, coyly.

Was it personal with you and Kobe? “Never that,” Paul says matter of fact. “For what? It’s basketball. That’s every night with us.” But it was Kobe versus Chris Paul, right?

“No, it was a team effort,” Paul responds. “I’m not a great one-on-one, player.”

Blake, what do you think about that?

“Oh, is this one for me?” Blake says, joking about CP3 hogging the mic. Paul smiles at him. “Yeah, I think he’s being a little modest,” Griffin says. “He prefers to break somebody down and get a teammate going, whether it’s his scoring or passing, it’s always a part of the team game.”

The press corps wants to know about Blake’s dive. While trying to save a ball in the third quarter, Griffin jumped over the scorer’s table, crashing into the stands and taking out two young boys in the front row, sending them flying to the floor in what appeared to be a scary scene at first glance. One of the boys seemed to be fine and the other shed a few tears. Blake showed a great deal of compassion in making sure they were going to be OK before getting back on the court.

“What did you say to those kids?”

And before the most exciting player in the NBA could utter a word, his MVP point guard let fly another brilliant assist. “Don’t wear jean shorts!”